On Tuesday of last week, the day after The Washington Post published its bombshell about President Trump’s Oval Office divulgences to Sergey Lavrov and Sergei Kisliyak, Sean Hannity took to the air at the Fox News Channel to discuss a murdered man named Seth Rich. Rich, a 27-year-old staffer at the Democratic National Committee, had been gunned down in Washington, DC, in July, seemingly the victim of a violent crime. Earlier that day, however, a local Fox TV station had reported—in a claim that would quickly be debunked—that Rich had ties to WikiLeaks, and that his death was, rather than the tragic result of random violence, instead evidence of a deeper conspiracy.
In the days since, that idea has leapt to life in the conservative areas of the media—an easy symbol, in the minds of many, of the “mainstream” media’s stubborn and partisan refusal to report on a story that would put the DNC in a negative light. (“Silence from Establishment Media over Seth Rich WikiLeaks Report,” Breitbart seethed.) And so, as many members of the nation’s press corps set out to further the Post’s reporting on the White House, the Rich story became a chorus-like feature on conservative-leaning media—and not just in Hannity’s extra-bombastic corner of Fox News. The Rich story hit Drudge. It exploded on social media. “NOT RUSSIA, BUT AN INSIDE JOB?” Breitbart asked, provocatively. The site added that, “if proven, the report has the potential to be one of the biggest cover-ups in American political history, dispelling the widespread claim that the Russians were behind hacks on the DNC.”
The problem was that the story was never proven. In fact, it had already fallen apart. Which is why, on Tuesday afternoon, a week after its initial publication, Fox News retracted the article speculating about Rich’s WikiLeaks ties, removing the story from its website wholesale.
“On May 16,” the channel wrote in an unsigned message,
a story was posted on the Fox News website on the investigation into the 2016 murder of DNC Staffer Seth Rich. The article was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting. Upon appropriate review, the article was found not to meet those standards and has since been removed.
What’s notable in that is how unapologetic the language of the retraction is—both considering the length of time the story was allowed to remain on Fox’s site, and even more especially because of the speed and the volume at which it was amplified. That’s in one way unsurprising: The story that was framed as evidence of the mainstream media’s collusion had become, in fact, evidence of the mainstream media’s restraint. The story whose subtext was the mainstream media’s inherent untrustworthiness had proven its real subtext to be the opposite.
And it took days to obtain even that terse retraction.
On Wednesday, a day after it first published the comments suggesting Rich’s connection to WikiLeaks—from Rod Wheeler, the former detective who had been hired by the family to investigate his death—the Fox affiliate clarified its story, writing, “What he told FOX 5 DC on camera Monday regarding Seth Rich’s murder investigation is in clear contrast to what he has said over the last 48 hours. Rod Wheeler has since backtracked.”
The story on Fox remained. It retained its chorus-like status.
On Friday, Snopes published an analysis thoroughly debunking the Rich/WikiLeaks connection.
The story on Fox remained. It amplified further across social media.
On Sunday, NBC News reported that the family of Seth Rich had sent a cease-and-desist letter to Wheeler, referencing his “improper and unauthorized statements, many of which are false and have no basis in fact” and adding that Wheeler’s behavior “appears to have been deliberate, intentional, outrageous, and in patent disregard of the Agreement and the obvious damage and suffering it would cause the Family.”
On the same day, Hannity, in a tweet, called on Congress to “investigate Seth Rich murder.”
And on Monday, Geraldo Rivera echoed his Fox News colleague, tweeting: “1) #SethRich shot in back(2)worked for #DNC which, (3)screwed @BernieSanders 4)#WIKILEAKS screwed DNC(5)Did #sethrich leak?(6)is it related?”
On Monday, as well, under the rubric “Let It Go,” The Daily Beast published an article featuring interviews from “nearly a dozen” reporters, pundits, and hosts at the network, quoting them saying, “It’s just gross” and “ARE WE STILL AIRING THAT SHIT?!”
They were, of course. They were airing it so steadily, and so stubbornly, that the retraction now will have extremely little effect. The impression of Seth Rich as an agent of conspiracy, rather than a victim of violence, is out there, among the public. It will be there for his family and friends to see; it will be there forming and informing public opinion. Breitbart’s story about the story is, as of publication, still online, still unchanged, still based on a now-retracted report. So are the thousands of others that shaped Americans’ minds and view of the world.
So what Fox has provided is a retraction of something that can no longer be taken back. The network waited too long. It didn’t care enough. It employs a pundit in Sean Hannity who, it was reported of this afternoon’s radio show, refuses to take blame for spreading lies. Even after Fox’s own terse retraction, it remains an open question whether the debunked story will still have its own kind of afterlife on the news channel of the fair and the balanced. The site’s statement retracting the Rich story, after all, ended not with an apology to Rich’s grieving family or an expression of regret for having allowed such a grave lie to make its way to the American public, but with something more ominous and defiant: “We will continue to investigate this story and will provide updates as warranted.”